Journalistic integrity is rapidly becoming just another oxymoron.
On Sunday, the local newspaper published a 16-page tabloid section titled “Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Top Workplaces,” listing 27 companies as top workplaces in large, midsize and small categories. For some unfathomable reason, the R-J was not one of the top workplaces.
There under the heading of “Methodology” — otherwise known as the fine print — the newspaper reveals that it worked with a company that sent survey forms to 800 businesses, but it got only 42 to participate. In other words, 64 percent of those who cooperated got labeled as top workplaces. Then, to add insult to injury, only 37 percent of the employees of those companies surveyed said their pay is fair for the work they do and only 27 percent said their benefits package is good compared to others in the industry.
Yippee-ki-yay, sign me up.
In a quick scan of the stories in the section about those 27 top workplaces, I found no mention of the actual employee responses to any of the specific questions in the survey. Most the stories don’t mention the word “salary.” One that did was merely a generic nod: “Employees cite salary and benefits as big pluses …” Seems like a rather large hole in the “news.”
Then, to add payola to insult, the section contained 10 ads and eight of those were sold to — can’t stand the suspense, can you? — companies that were rated top workplaces.
Now, newspapers have long crafted sections devoted to certain categories of advertisers — such as real estate and automotive — and filled the adjacent “news” hole with fluffy copy about the topic. But it is customary for these to be clearly labeled as “promotional sections.” The Top Workplaces section bore no such label. No disclaimer. No disclosure. No mea culpa. No class. No shame.
In 1999, the Los Angeles Times published a special section about the then-new downtown Staples Center sports and entertainment complex, but the paper never revealed to its readers or its own journalists that the newspaper had entered into a deal with the center to split the profits from the section.
That was a major breach of The Wall that is supposed to separate advertising and marketing from the newsroom, which is not supposed to sully its objectivity skirts by taking kickbacks.
That was such an outrageous violation of ethics that the Times on a Sunday ran a front-page letter from the editor and publisher apologizing for the embarrassing lapse in judgment. Then on the next day — in an unprecedented 14-page mea culpa — the newspaper had staff writer David Shaw go over the whole ordeal in excruciating detail.
The most telling and revealing aspect of the apologia section was a comment from his clueless publisher, Kathryn Downing. Shaw wrote: “She said she had thought that if no one in the news department of the paper — including those who worked on the Staples issue — knew of the agreement, there could be no doubts about the editorial independence of the effort.”
I wrote in my Sunday column the next week:
“At the Review-Journal we’ve handled this issue partly by creating a Promotions department which handles the text that accompanies special sections like real estate, pool and patio, dining, gardening, etc. Such sections are supposed to be clearly labeled as promotional or advertising sections and typography should not mimic the news section. The people who write this copy are talented professionals providing interesting and useful information. But it is not masquerading as news.
“A few times a year there are news-driven sections with advertising tie-ins. The ‘Best of Las Vegas’ section started as a whimsical feature created by the Living section, but has proven so popular it has grown into a 100-page-plus tabloid each spring. The only news aspect driven by the advertising is the number of pages and the amount of editorial copy required to fill it. There is no link between the column-inches of advertising one buys and whether one is recognized as a ‘Best of … ‘
“Actually, no one has alleged there was any overt attempt to spin the news content of the L.A. Times Staples section. But the temptation is obvious with the profit sharing deal. And that is why The Wall was built … the perception of the ulterior motive.”
It certainly appears there was a direct link between the “news” copy written by someone named Buck Wargo — a stringer, I think — and the advertising content.
I concluded that 1999 column by writing:
“We should not dupe our readers to serve our advertisers. We lose credibility with both, and for no reason. People can figure out things for themselves if we just disclose. And keep The Wall in place.”
Now, sit back and wait for the front page apology from the R-J’s publisher and editor. I’m sure it will come any day.
By the way, the solicitation for online nominations for Top Workplaces took place about the same time as the online survey asking readers their opinions about the newspaper’s opinion pages. I wonder when the paper will tell its readers the results of that survey? May about the same time as that apology?
Or when what freezes over?